A past world is revealed to us in Bianca Lakoseljac’s lyrical Summer of the Dancing Bear, a world in which gypsy lore and culture play prominent roles. The author makes the discovery of this world deeply rewarding by using a risky gambit in portraying her heroine’s consciousness.
A girl struggles to come of age in this haunting story set in Tito’s Yugoslavia in the 1960s, and the struggles arise because of the girl’s unusual abilities. She perceives her idyllic country surroundings unusually deeply for one so young: the harvest-ready wheat fields glow and swirl as though rendered by Van Gogh – her grandmother took her to the museum to see the exhibit – and her dreams reveal events and calamities she could not know of otherwise. Her grandmother is friendly with the gypsies when they pass through, and they respect her as a shaman. Her grandmother also sees the abilities of young Kata, and raises her with loving attention.
The gypsies play a central role here, first by bringing a bear to perform at the village in the summer of Kata’s eighth year. This vividly-told event sets off the narrative’s tragic spiral. A village woman’s baby disappears, and the gypsies are naturally blamed. Kata, in the midst of an idyllic childhood, plays a role in the events at a climactic event in which her abilities finally become apparent.
Ms. Lakoseljac sets herself a very difficult path: she portrays Kata’s consciousness as a confused and dream-infused vision. Thoughts and images come to her suddenly – sometimes she has been dreaming, and sometimes she finds herself in a remote spot near a marsh or woodland with no idea how she got there. Sometimes it affects her health, and her loved ones and neighbors become alarmed for her. The author always fills us in on the events that lead to the spell, and poor Kata must work through the significance of her visions. Readers will find themselves wishing they could help, because Kata is a very sympathetic character.
Regardless of Kata’s sudden and unpredictable visions, this book is tightly-plotted and rewarding. It honors the oppressed and wandering Romany tribes, effectively portraying their lust for life as well as their humanity and enlightened traditions. Kata learns the part she will play in the tradition, and the reader is treated to a captivating story set in a seeming far-off time and place. Highly recommended.